I was about 10 years old, and I remember sitting on the big yellow school bus, the third or fourth seat from the front, by myself, looking out of the rattling metal-framed window. I had long hair then with a fringe that swooped to the left side. I was in that awkward stage of a pre-teen. While I was sitting in the fake dark puke green leather seat, I remember listening to the “popular” girls behind me.
“Watch… she’ll do it again,” said one of the girls. Not knowing what they were talking about, I flicked my head to get my long fringe out of my face and changed my gaze out towards the front windshield. The giggles began. “See, she thinks she’s so cool. Watch, she’ll do it again!” I just stared forward as I realised they were talking about me.
When we recall our memories, the specific details of where, when, whom, and what are usually present in what’s called “objective memory”. But some memories evoke an experiential feeling. When I recall the memory in my story above, I literally relive the memory in my mind with such clarity and feeling that I go back to being that 10-year-old self-conscious little girl. This is what’s called “subjective memory”.
These two types of memories impact our decision-making, and it’s interesting to see how now, as an adult, my experiential memory plays such a huge role in my thinking.
Subjective Memories in the Brain
New insight into how we recall memories and their implications on our decision-making process has been published (9 March 2021) in a study conducted by Yana Fandakova et al. in eLife. The study looks at the neural mechanisms of how our memories impact our future decision making.
“By understanding how our brains give rise to vivid subjective memories and memory decisions, we are moving a step closer to understanding how we learn to evaluate memory evidence in order to make effective decisions in the future,” Fandakova said as quoted in this Neuroscience News article.
Why is this important?
In taking the example of my memory of being teased on the school bus. I remember that moment so precisely, almost reliving the event. Every time I recall that memory, I feel the experience all over again. I vividly remember feeling interested initially (who were they talking about) and then feeling the physical reddening of my face of the embarrassment that followed. That memory is powerful for me.
“Accurate memories are often associated with vivid experiences of recollection.“
In the study, the researchers were able to parse out which regions of the brain were activated during the recall of an objective memory and those activated during the recall of subjective memories. The important outcome is that these different forms of memories are activating different regions in the brain.
When we make decisions based on objective memories, such as I remember watching my Mom make cookies… the prefrontal cortex areas of the brain “show greater engagement”. These memories bring up the who, what, where, and when to achieve a goal.
But when subjective memories, such as my school bus memory, are recalled, “the parietal, hippocampal and parahippocampal areas were more strongly associated.” The parietal lobe is responsible for integrating sensory information into our memory. The hippocampal and parahippocampal areas are responsible for learning and memory and spatial and navigation information, respectively. Our subjective memories are utilising more areas of the brain and integrating the responses. It’s no wonder our subjective memories have more impact.
So, how does this affect our decision making?
It comes down to the details and reflection.
The study explains that when we decide based on our subject memory, we are making that decision around how we feel about the memory we remember instead of the immediate details’ accuracy.
The study outlines three things:
1. Our objective and subjective memory are distinctly different from each other in our brain.
2. These areas function independently from one another.
3. People more often make decisions based on subjective memory and not so much on the accuracy of the event,
“The study… shows that decision making depends primarily on the subjective evaluation of memory evidence,” — Simona Ghetti, Professor at University California Davis, a coauthor of the study.
We tend to make our decisions based on how we feel about a memory over accuracy.
What’s the Impact?
Older now and more reflective in my behaviour, I can see how this has affected my life.
When I recall the memory, I can still feel the sadness and negative thoughts attached to the situation. The teasing girls were implying (in my mind) that I was fake, better than them, or pompous and conceited. For a very self-conscious 10 year old, those thoughts hurt.
Looking back, those thoughts that accompanied that memory were ones I held for much of my life. Back then, I didn’t know how to use my prefrontal cortex to question my thoughts or my subjective memories. Instead, I used those areas of my brain to “feel” my way through life… and then “think” about how to do the opposite. I built a wall.
What to do now.
It’s easy for me to say, right, so stop using your subjective memory to make decisions. But actually, when you are in the midst of reliving a subjective memory, it’s easier said than done. But you can make strides to become aware of the underlying driver of a decision.
Taking a step back and evaluating our decisions may help us come to grips with why we make a decision and when emotion needs to be taken out of the context of the decision. For example, when you’re buying a house (or any other emotionally charged purchase), think about whether there is a different decision you could make that’s not based on your subjective memory that may lead you down an emotional path.
If anything, this study provides another tool in your arsenal of thinking questions. Once you’ve calmed down and stepped out of the decision at hand, you can ask yourself the question…
Am I feeling subjective memory right now?
Go Get ’Em.